You have just accepted a nonprofit job. You are excited. You are nervous. Maybe you desperately need the money, and every bone in your body is telling you to sign the offer letter in front of you so you can be one step closer to a full bank account. The thought of negotiating – of asking for more pay or better benefits – sounds like something high powered executives in the corporate world do, not a program coordinator for a small nonprofit. Put that thought out of your mind. It is just as critical for you to negotiate as it is the CEO of Google. Why?
You need the money. Let’s face it, unless you are an independently wealthy heir to a western European throne, we all need money to survive. We need to pay bills, make car payments, buy food, clothing, birthday presents, and chew toys for our dogs. It’s okay to admit that we need money. It doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t make us less committed to the mission. It makes us honest people. It makes us better workers. If you are sitting at your desk and worrying about how you will survive until the 30th with $54.78 in the bank, you aren’t thinking about your lesson plan for the 6th graders that afternoon. If you are late to work once a week because you have to stop by Autozone and put extra oil in your car because there is a slow leak from “somewhere in the engine” and you are horrified to take it to a mechanic because you know deep in your soul that it is the alternator, which will cost $400 to replace…ok, you get the point. You aren’t at work when you are supposed to be, doing your job, thinking about your job. Getting paid fairly gives us the stability we need to be good employees. Getting paid fairly keeps us happy and content in our current job and feelings of bitterness and resentment at bay. Resist the urge to see negotiating a higher salary as selfish.
You need the recognition. Nonprofits are staffed with altruistic people. No one is in it for the money. Great! If money is so meaningless, let’s take the whole budget for salaries, divide it by the number of employees, and all get paid the same? No? That won’t work? Why not? Because as much as we like to believe nonprofits are “different from the real world,” they aren’t. Just like everywhere else in our capitalist society, nonprofits have a pay and prestige hierarchy. You worked hard to acquire your skills and talents through years of work, education, and/or life experiences. Whether you are fundraising, managing budgets, implementing daily programs, or taking out the trash, your employer should recognize the role you play in the organization and pay you appropriately. (We’ll talk another day about how nonprofits should change how they value skills and talents.)
You’ll never be in this position again. Raises – even just 3% cost of living raises – can be hard to come by in nonprofits. (Don’t get me started on this atrocity.) You should be prepared to live with this salary for several years to come, keeping in mind that life can change quickly. When I took my first nonprofit job, I was 22 years old, just out of college, had a roommate, no car payment, and happily ate scrambled eggs for seven out of ten meals. My $23,000 salary sounded like a windfall. Five years later, I had my own place, my 1996 Toyota Corolla went to the great car dealership in the sky, and my friends who were once content with a burger and a Bud Light were now interested in Thai, Sauvignon Blanc, and weekend trips to New Orleans. I was lucky my financial duress was limited to declining a few social outings and shopping at TJ Maxx. Around me, my coworkers were trying to raise children, refinancing mortgages, and struggling to pay off student loans and medical bills that sometimes took them to the edge of bankruptcy. Getting paid what you are worth is not greedy. Having extra money each month to put in savings or enjoy life with is not gluttonous. Being financially secure is not a crime. Research what someone in your position and with your credentials gets paid and ask for it.
You are uniquely qualified. Uniquely qualified in this instance refers to a special class of nonprofit employees that are surprisingly common: individuals with experience or knowledge specific to an organization, e.g. former clients whose success reflects the organization’s mission, alumni who can personally attest to the value of a program, or past interns who can hit the ground running. While the job itself may be entry-level, these employees are also symbolically important to the organization. You might be featured as a success story in a local paper or profiled in the annual report. In other words, you may perform duties outside the scope of their job description. It’s for employees in this position to say, “You know, X is a perfectly reasonable salary for someone in this position, but since I have Y qualifications specific to this job, I deserve additional compensation.”
They are low-balling you. The 5th and final reason is very simple: you should negotiate because chances are, you are already in negotiations. Back when I was 22 and agreeing to $23,000 a year, I thought – naively – that if this is the salary they offered me, this is what they could pay. I was wrong. Five years later, I was shredding documents and came across the projected budget for the year I was hired. To my astonishment, there was my position – Program Assistant – with a higher number next to it. Not a lot more money – maybe 3% – but an amount that would have made a difference to me that year: a plane ticket home, one month’s rent, a new alternator. I was astonished to realize I had been low-balled. They assumed I was going to counter with a higher number, and essentially I had walked away from money that could have easily been mine.